This week’s winter weather put an incredible strain on Oklahoma City and Memphis, who both played Tuesday night, but the Thunder had a more interesting journey to Wednesday's game.
The weather did not let up enough for OKC to leave its snowy metropolis for another until Wednesday afternoon. Joe Mussatto of The Oklahoman said that the team was set to leave OKC just after 3 p.m.
During Wednesday’s radio broadcast, Thunder announcer Matt Pinto said the team landed in Memphis around 4:30 p.m. and arrived at the FedExForum at 6 p.m. The game tipped off at 8 p.m.
Back-to-back games are always difficult, but mixing in a major snowstorm, delayed travel and two important lineup changes can make it darn near impossible to emerge with a victory.
Memphis took control of the back-and-forth affair in the fourth quarter to down Oklahoma City 122-113 on Wednesday night.
First Takeaway: Back Together Again
One half – a very, VERY big half – of Oklahoma City’s backcourt made his return to the court on Wednesday.
After dealing with a nagging left knee sprain that caused him to miss the team’s last four games, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was back in Thunder blue.
SGA was once again alongside guard Theo Maledon, who made his own return to the floor (health and safety protocols) Tuesday against Portland, but the team played like it was just getting used to having them on the floor together.
Gilgeous-Alexander scored 13 points, had four assists and zero turnovers in 18 first-half minutes. Meanwhile, a combination of Maledon, Justin Jackson, Darius Bazley, Isaiah Roby and Lu Dort tallied 11 turnovers in the first 24 minutes. By game’s end, Memphis stole the ball away from Oklahoma City 14 times out of OKC’s 18 total turnovers.
You may also remember the Thunder’s starting five of SGA, Maledon, Dort, Bazley and Roby, who were all 22 years old or younger when it played Jan. 25 at Portland, produced one of the youngest starting lineups in NBA history and a victory over the Trail Blazers.
The quintet started Wednesday’s game with one key difference. Isaiah Roby turned 23 on Feb. 3.
That was the day the music died.
Second Takeaway: Bully Ball
The second game of a back-to-back has meant one thing for the Thunder this season: A resting Al Horford.
Conventional wisdom says a thin Thunder team with no Al Horford going up against a Memphis team with Jonas Valanciunas might spell trouble for Oklahoma City.
Reader: OKC had trouble. All of the trouble. So much trouble.
Isaiah Roby tried, but the 6-foot-8 backup had no chance of keeping the bouncy 7-foot Valanciunas in front of him. The 6-foot-11 Mike Muscala didn't fare much better.
Valanciunas and his Memphis teammates made a concerted effort to go right at Roby to start the third quarter. Roby committed his third and fourth personal fouls early in the second half, which forced him off the floor halfway through the third period.
OKC’s issues defending the paint went beyond Valanciunas. Memphis outscored Oklahoma City 52-24 as a team in the painted area. The Grizzlies also had a 13-8 edge on second chance points.
But back to Valanciunas, who finished with a team-high-tying 22 points to go along with 12 rebounds.
In terms of offensive rebounding, Valanciunas is among the league’s best. According to Basketball Reference, he entered Wednesday as the NBA’s 13th-best offensive rebounder in terms of rate (12.1%), which is “an estimate of the percentage of available offensive rebounds a player grabbed while they were on the floor.”
Considering he only plays around 27 or 28 minutes per game, like he did Wednesday against OKC, that can be a pretty substantial impact on a basketball game.
Valanciunas grabbed five offensive rebounds by himself in 28 minutes Wednesday. Oklahoma City had six offensive boards in 48 minutes.
Third Takeaway: S.O.S.
The calendar is inching ever so closer to March, which means some of us will feign interest in college basketball for the first time in two years.
Teams vying for those precious at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament will be judged by a selection committee, in part, on how difficult their season schedules might have been.
The teams who have stronger opponents on their schedules tend to get the selection committee’s benefit of the doubt and earn election to The Big Dance.
No such dance exists in the NBA, but it is worth noting just how hard things have been for Thunder this season.
Oklahoma City has been hit by multiple injuries to key starters and constant rotation upheaval but nothing has been more striking than how tough the team’s schedule has been thus far.
According to two metrics, OKC has played one of the toughest schedules leaguewide. PowerRankingsGuru.com calculated that the Thunder are owners of the fourth-toughest schedule in the NBA. ESPN’s Relative Percent Index rounds out OKC’s strength of schedule as the second-toughest NBA schedule, trailing only its Northwest Division opponent, the Denver Nuggets.
Regardless of who the Thunder play, this is still the NBA. It is supposed to be hard to go out and play the best basketball players and teams this planet has to offer. Plus, the schedule tends to even itself out as the season continues.
While the schedule might even out "eventually," "eventually" is not today.
After facing the title-contending Milwaukee Bucks and streaking Portland Trail Blazers to start the week, the Thunder will hop on another plane and meet the Bucks again on Friday. Add Friday night to the pile of difficult matchups which already includes the L.A. Lakers three times, the L.A. Clippers twice, Denver Nuggets twice and the Brooklyn Nets twice in the first half of OKC's season. Seven of the nine games against these opponents were on the road.
When the first half of the schedule is complete on March 4, the Thunder will play Denver a third time and also face the San Antonio Spurs for a second and third time.
Hold onto your butts.